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S.F. Jazz Festival 

Wednesday, Oct 22 1997
Picking the Fest
The New Cuban Jazz With Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio and Omar Sosa/John Santos Duo
Cuba has been America's risque playground of choice for years. During Prohibition, this gangster's paradise baited well-heeled playboys with its promise of free-flowing libations, freewheeling women, unlimited gambling, superstinky cigars, and scorching music. After the birth of bebop, Dizzy Gillespie and his bandmates sojourned there for a first-hand tutorial in the fine art of Afro-Cuban rhythms. In the '40s and '50s at New York's Palladium Dance Hall, Cuban expatriates like mambo pioneer Machito ensured an irrepressible Latino presence on the thriving big-band scene.

The rise of Castro put Cuba off-limits, but musicians and producers haven't let that spoil the fun. From Roy Hargrove's tepid Habana, with masterful performances by Chucho Valdes and Miguel "Anga" Diaz, to Steve Coleman's progressive The Sign & the Seal, with the stellar AfroCuba de Matanzas, American jazz and Afro-Cuban collaborations are everywhere these days. Further, ambitious compilations like Qbadisc's ongoing series Cuba Gold and Blue Jackel's new four-CD box, Cuba -- I Am Time, illustrate the overwhelming breadth of the island's folkloric traditions, as well as significant new developments.

The title of Sunday night's double bill -- "The New Cuban Jazz" -- is somewhat misleading. Lyrical pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is a formidable technician, but his mainstream approach (and appeal) is clearly traditional. However, genre-fusing pianist Omar Sosa's partnership with virtuosic percussionist John Santos may yield some real innovation. Best of all, you won't have to risk your passport partaking in the action.

The Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio and Omar Sosa/John Santos Duo perform on Sunday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. at Herbst Theater (Van Ness & McAllister). Tickets are $16-35; call 398-5655.

Don Byron Bug Music Septet
When asked once why more young African-Americans aren't playing creative jazz these days, clarinetist Don Byron said, "Black men need something they can be, and this music is something you find." Of course, the lack of financial reward is another major disincentive, but that never deterred Byron. For nearly a decade, he has made a career out of finding and reviving the songs of such far-flung composers as klezmaniac Mickey Katz, pioneering big-band leader Duke Ellington -- even 19th-century classical composer Robert Schumann.

Byron's latest project, Bug Music, named after the Flintstones' take on the Beatles (and Byron's perception of the way the public hears his music), casts a contemporary light on the little-known early works of Ellington, John Kirby, and Raymond Scott. In the 1920s and '30s, these bandleaders were all the rage. One listen to the fiery "Powerhouse" or jubilant "Cotton Club Stomp" explains why. Timeless in their harmonic, rhythmic, and pop-nostalgic appeal, these tunes conjure up memories of the Little Rascals, the Marx Brothers, and Carl Stalling (of Warner Bros. cartoon soundtrack fame) in the most colorful black-and-white you could ever imagine. Plus, their seamless union of classical and jazz languages predates the advent of 1950s Third Stream (and modern-day pomo hybrids) by at least two decades. It may not be new, but Bug Music is a rare find.

The Don Byron Bug Music Septet performs with the Graham Connah Group on Thursday, Oct. 23, at 8 and 10:30 p.m. at Bimbo's 365 Club (Columbus & Chestnut). Tickets are $20-28; call 474-0365.

The Beat Goes On: Living Legends of Jazz Drumming With Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine, Roy Haynes Group, and Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins Duo

If you want to know about a particular drummer, ask another drummer. Trapsmiths hear their work differently from the rest of us. Young players can't even begin to play jazz without studying the music of their forebears. I asked three up-and-coming drummers in the Bay Area improv scene to explain why this concert by the masters is not to be missed:

Garth Powell: "During the Coltrane period ['60-66], Elvin Jones created a whole new language for drum kit that had never been done to that level before. ... So much intensity and so much thunder and volume, yet everything he does is so musical and interconnected with what's going on with the rest of the band on every level. Billy Higgins is incredibly subtle and probably speaks with more force and volume at a quiet dynamic level better than any drummer on the planet."

Andrew Borger: "Elvin Jones is an energy kind of player, like a ball of sound sort of rolling through the landscape. He's able to muscle notes into places where they don't really belong. He was the drummer who could keep up with Trane for the longest time when he was really inventing. Roy Haynes' solo voice is surgically precise. His single-line approach to phrasing is uniquely clear, transparent."

Aaron Johnston: "Roy Haynes makes the heaviest statements by creatively using the whole drum set. Every hit counts. He gets so many sounds just by hitting the rims. Billy Higgins, vibewise, is just so happy, like he feels so blessed to be playing. And he's got a huge bounce not like anyone else."

Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, and Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins perform on Sunday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. at Masonic Auditorium (California & Taylor). Tickets are $16-44; call 398-5655.

-- Sam Prestianni

About The Author

Sam Prestianni


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